Who Are The Real Terrorists?

The rise of political polarization in the wake of the May 9 incidents has coincided with the distortion of the legal definition of terrorist. Unless the Pakistani state knows who the real terrorists are, our security policy shall remain incoherent and doomed to ...


What we are witnessing on our western borders is a strategic threat. The Pakistani state and government cannot afford to treat the rising tide of violence on our western borders as a public relations or propaganda problem. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and other Sunni extremist groups hiding on both sides of the Pak-Afghan border are a strategic military threat. We cannot wish them away by securing fatwas from religious leaders. It is a military threat, and requires a hardcore military response.  

Two weeks ago, a Pakistani government representative senior diplomat Asif Durrani asked Taliban Supreme leader Haibatullah Akhundzada to make his official fatwa public in which he declared Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan’s militant and terror activities against Pakistan as un-Islamic. Officials said that Pakistani put forward this demand for an explicit order by the Taliban Supreme leader after the recent surge in cross border terrorist attacks. The Pakistan Foreign Office sent Asif Durrani to Kabul for a three-day trip with a clear message that the interim Afghan government will have to abide by the commitment it made with the international community in the Doha Agreement. 

When the Pakistani side, led by Ambassador Asif Durrani, the special representative on Afghanistan, pressed senior Taliban leaders to come good on their promises of not allowing the TTP to operate from Afghan soil, he was told that the Taliban chief had issued an executive order declaring attacks against Pakistan as religiously forbidden. The executive order or decree was circulated internally, and was not made public. “However, Pakistan asked the Afghan side to make that decree public, because only then will it make an impact.”

At least the Pakistani military now seems to finally realize that handling the TTP threat requires much more than simply securing fatwas from religious leaders. Pakistani military experts believe that the Taliban’s terrorist activities require a hard military response, for which the Pakistani state and government would have to muster all resources at its disposal, “A fatwa from Taliban supreme leader could only marginally affect the military situation on the ground,” said a military expert. 

Military experts say that the Pakistan government and military should prepare for a long military campaign against terror groups in the region.

The Pakistani Taliban are greatly under the influence of the Afghan Taliban, and there is a growing body of opinion in Islamabad’s officialdom which thinks that TTP’s cause will receive a blow in case the Taliban Supreme Commander publicly issues a fatwa against them. Pakistani military experts believe that the region’s terror landscape is much more complex than this simple reading of the situation. They say neither the Afghan Taliban nor TTP completely control the regional terror landscape. “There is a large pool of fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s border areas, and they tend to shift towards more radical groups in case their mother organization tends to go easy on the Pakistani government and other regional governments,” said the military expert. 

Even if the Afghan Taliban convince the TTP not to attack the Pakistani military and urban centers, there is every chance that more radicalized fighters will start joining ISIS-Khorasan. This has happened in the past. Military experts say that the Pakistan government and military should prepare for a long military campaign against terror groups in the region. Securing a fatwa could only be a sideshow in this situation.

Pakistani society seems to be in a kind of slumber - it doesn’t realize that terror is once again knocking at the gates. There is hardly any expression of concern in civil society over what has become too obvious to military minds in our midst. The Taliban are making advances. True, they are in no position to take control of any territory in the Pak-Afghan border areas, primarily because of the heavy presence of the Pakistani military in these areas. But they can cause a lot of trouble and could disrupt civic life in tribal areas as well as in the urban centers of Pakistan. 

The Pak-Afghan border area is populated by a large variety of tribes, sub-tribes, and clans, each with its own network of ties, but unified by the collective of being called Pathan or Pashtuns, imbued with the characteristic force of character, bravery, and perspicacity. “Over the years, however, the larger towns have become a mix of various other people from the rest of Pakistan, just as many Pathans have migrated to, or work in the larger cities of Punjab, Sindh, and Baluchistan. The population contains several ethnological sections, representing the deposits formed by different streams of immigration or invasion. Most numerous and important are the Pathans (Pukhtana), the majority of the agricultural population in Peshawar, Kohat and Bannu,'' reads a booklet by the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government. Tribes on the Pakistani side of the border are greatly influenced by the culture of prosperity and middle-class life projected by Pakistan’s newly established television channels. Tribesmen can now be found in the galleries of the Pakistani parliament lobbying among the lawmakers to fund the building of schools and colleges in their areas. 

Reports in Pakistani media suggest that TTP has lost much of its support among Pakistani tribes. Tribes on the Pakistani side of the border fear that the Taliban’s return will increase their difficulties. The Pakistani government has been urged by their international partners to increase development funds for tribal areas as this would ensure that TTP doesn’t get a foothold in this region. The Pakistani government fears that if TTP succeeds in making tribal areas their base, they could extend their area of operation to major urban centers.

Pakistani society seems to be in a kind of slumber - it doesn’t realize that terror is once again knocking at the gates. There is hardly any expression of concern in civil society over what has become too obvious to military minds in our midst.

The basic problem in dealing with the Taliban threat is that we are deeply fractured and ideologically confused at the moment. Back in 2009 when the Pakistani military started military operations in the tribal areas and Swat, at the political level, the government was successful in bringing all political forces to a consensus against terror and terror groups. The military commanders were much more confident about how their society would respond in the event of their troops entering tribal areas. Our military commanders would not be as confident today as they were in 2009. The primary reason is that there is a basic conflict among political forces over the nature of violence that the state is supposed to be fighting.  With the ongoing trial of hundreds of political workers on terrorism charges in Pakistani courts, the Pakistani government is finding it difficult to distinguish between ordinary political violence and hardcore terrorism perpetuated by terror organizations such as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan.

More than a 100 activists of the former ruling party PTI are now facing terrorism related charges in connection with the attacks on military installations in May. According to reports from the Punjab government, some 3400 citizens of Lahore attacked what is considered a symbol of military power in Central Punjab, the Corps Commander’s residence, located in the secure environment of Lahore Cantt. Similarly, attacks on military cantonments took place in other cities, including Mianwali, Rawalpindi and Sargodha – the three cities which can be described as the heartland of the Pakistan military’s recruitment drives. GHQ was attacked, PAF bases were attacked and some other installations of the military came under attack in what is Central, Northern and Western Punjab. This happened on May 9, immediately after PTI chairman Imran Khan was arrested for the first time on that day.

The level of terrorism charges on political workers have confused the terrorism related debate in Pakistani society. Never before in the country's history have political activists ever attacked military installations, except at the time of the 1971 Civil War in East Pakistan. Military installations always come under attack from terror groups and separatist groups operating in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. However, experts believe that what Pakistani society witnessed on May 9 could be described as political violence, and not terrorism. 

However, Pakistani laws don't have any provisions of dealing with heinous political violence of the type witnessed on May 9. Pakistani police arrested 809 rioters under terrorism charges in Peshawar and almost the same number of rioters in Lahore in connection with the violence on May 9. Out of these, 100 people are being prosecuted in military tribunals for their alleged roles in last month's nationwide violent protests over the sudden arrest of former prime Minister Imran Khan. "Currently, 102 miscreants are under trial in 17 standing military courts nationwide. Civilian courts lawfully transferred these cases to military courts after examining the proof (against the suspects)," said a military spokesman. On the other hand, the Pakistani military regularly arrests militants and terrorists associated with TTP during their raids in tribal areas. These terrorists and militants undergo interrogation in high security prisons before they are handed over to civilian authorities for trial under terrorism related law.

The problem is that this is not simply a definitional or academic conflict. This is a conflict which will divide the society down the middle at the political level. This will revive the age-old debate as to who is a terrorist. What groups should state forces be fighting? Simply those groups which are armed and fighting the state? Or also those which are not armed, but had attacked military installations? It is true that the military didn’t respond to the attacks by unarmed civilians like the way it responded to attacks by armed groups. But the full coercive machinery of the state has been unleashed on this group of civilians. 

This question will haunt our government and state in future debates on terrorism and violence at a time when we should be focused on making strategies about dealing with terrorism and violence on our western frontier.

The writer is a journalist based in Islamabad.